A letter to the faithful from the Colorado bishops on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine

The Colorado Bishops affirm that Catholics should consider how a vaccine was created and tested before receiving it.

In Letter to the Faithful on COVID-19 Vaccines (December 14, 2020), the Colorado bishops wrote:

“The bishops of Colorado affirm that the use of some COVID-19 vaccines is morally acceptable under certain circumstances. At the same time, we must remember that a good end cannot justify evil means. Vaccines need to be developed according to ethical criteria. Human cell lines that come from aborted fetuses should not be used in the design, development, production, or lab testing of vaccines. The development of vaccines and other medicines using aborted fetal cells is ethically unacceptable.”1

The Catholic Church recognizes the incredible potential of the COVID-19 vaccines to eliminate suffering and potentially lead to an end to the current health crisis. Already, there has been progress from the vaccines to bring about lower infection rates in Colorado and nationwide. The rapid development of effective vaccines for COVID-19 is an astounding medical accomplishment, and government leaders across the world should be working to ensure that every person who desires it, be vaccinated.

However, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which recently received emergency approval from the FDA, used cell lines derived from an aborted fetus in its design, development, production, and testing and is, therefore, not a morally valid option if one has the ability to choose a vaccine. Given the availability of the more morally acceptable Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines in Colorado, Catholics should avoid the morally compromised Johnson & Johnson or AstraZeneca vaccination (as noted in the December letter) in favor of Moderna or Pfizer.

Most Coloradans have a unique opportunity to choose morally acceptable options when electing to be vaccinated. On March 2, 2021, Governor Jared Polis established Colorado as a national leader in allowing people to choose which vaccine fits their conscience. In a press conference discussing vaccine distribution he said, “When [people are] signing up for an appointment, they will know what [vaccine] they would get at that [provider], and if it’s not the one they want, they can sign up at a different site at a different time to get the one they want.”2 Additionally, websites such as https://www.vaccinespotter.org/CO/ will also help individuals find morally acceptable vaccines nearest them.

While each individual should give careful consideration to the morality of different vaccines, the Colorado bishops affirm the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) statement that “being vaccinated can be an act of charity that serves the common good.”3 Each of us has the responsibility, whether we choose to be vaccinated or not, to take measures that promote the public health and care for our neighbors.

In some cases, individuals may be restricted in their access to morally acceptable vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna. This could be because of location, health care coverage, or other reasons. In these rare cases, when an individual has no other option, it is morally acceptable to be vaccinated with more morally compromised vaccines. According to the the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,

“In this sense, when ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available (e.g. in countries where vaccines without ethical problems are not made available to physicians and patients, or where their distribution is more difficult due to special storage and transport conditions, or when various types of vaccines are distributed in the same country but health authorities do not allow citizens to choose the vaccine with which to be inoculated) it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.”4

However, whenever possible, the Colorado Bishops encourage making a sincere effort to choose the morally acceptable options. By exploring every available option to receive a morally acceptable vaccine, an individual is engaging in clear opposition to the morally compromised vaccine, even if he or she ultimately finds that they have no other option.

Furthermore, if individuals have serious moral objections or health concerns about any vaccines, those concerns should be respected by society and government, and those individuals should not be forced into vaccination, contrary to their conscience. The government should never mandatorily impose the COVID- 19 vaccines on its citizens.

With the decrease in COVID-19 spread and an increasing vaccination rate, the end of the current pandemic is within sight. It is crucial, however, that our pursuit of public health is in accordance with our moral beliefs and commitment to respecting life at every stage of development.

As more vaccines become available for public consumption, the Charlotte Lozier Institute remains a useful resource to identify which vaccines are morally acceptable.5 We continue to encourage our community to reference that list.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Most Reverend Samuel J. Aquila
Archbishop of Denver

Most Reverend Stephen J. Berg
Bishop of Pueblo

Most Reverend Michael J. Sheridan
Bishop of Colorado Springs

Most Reverend Jorge Rodriguez
Auxiliary Bishop of Denver

  1. “A Letter to the Faithful from the Colorado Bishops on COVID-19 Vaccines.” Colorado Catholic Conference, www.cocatholicconference.org/a-letter-to-the-faithful-from-the-colorado-bishops-on-covid-19-vaccines/.
  2. KUSA.com, 2 Mar. 2021, www.9news.com/article/news/health/coronavirus/vaccine/colorado-covid-cases-vaccine-johnson-johnson-latest/73-72f1500f-236c-416e-9b9a-2ede89322722.
  3. USCCB, 2 Mar. 2021, www.usccb.org/news/2021/us-bishop-chairmen-doctrine-and-pro-life-address-use-johnson-johnson- covid-19-vaccine.
  4. Note of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Morality of Using Some Anti-Covid-19 Vaccines, press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2020/12/21/201221c.html.
  5. Charlotte Lozier Institute, lozierinstitute.org/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-covid-19-vaccine/.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.